My darling K,
This note will start out kind of depressing, but I promise that, as in every good piece of writing, there will be a turning.
My memories of my early life are murky, but I think I was about six years old when kids started teasing me by calling me fat. That would have been first grade. Remarkably, I wasn’t particularly fat; big-boned, my mom called me, and that was accurate. I liked to eat and was more bookish than athletic. I had a round little tummy and probably had to wear clothes from some embarrassing fashion line called “Sturdy Gurlz” or similar. But kids can be mean, and this particular group of mean girls figured out that the word FAT held a lot of power over me.
That was, to be deliberately ominous, the beginning of the end. Eight or nine years of incessant bullying got into my mind like nothing else. The taunts drowned out the praise I heard from the wonderful adults in my life, compliments of my intellect or musical talent or sense of humor. I didn’t care about any of those things, at least not most of the time. I wanted to be pretty, and instinctively I knew I never would be. After all, I was a smart kid.
Those thoughts followed me for the rest of my life, from first grade through the witching years—junior high—and right into high school, which was the time in my life when I was perhaps the most tormented by my un-beauty. (Here’s something crazy, by the way… my sophomore year of high school, I was 5’ 6” and 140 pounds. Not exactly obese, right? True, I had a bad haircut and was obsessed with the grunge look [oversized flannel shirts and ratty jeans, since you’re a millennial and probably have NO IDEA what grunge was!] But I didn’t actually look all that different from my peers. What defined me was how I perceived myself, and in turn how that led others to perceive me. In a strange way, by high school those mean girls were no longer my worst enemy. I was.)
My inner critic and the high-pitched and brilliantly targeted cruelty of Kelly B. (I will never forget her name OR forgive her) followed me through college, overseas to Thailand, and then to Washington, DC. Wherever I went, I never felt as beautiful as my friends. If someone told me I was cute, or flirted with me, I wasn’t always sure I deserved it.
Know what? I’m still not. I still shake off any compliments I receive. On a deep unconscious level I assume they are insincere. For thirty years, not a day has passed when I haven’t scrutinized my figure in the mirror and tried to wish away my least favorite aspects of my physique. Not a week has passed in more than two decades when I haven’t weighed myself and sighed because I don’t see my ideal number. Every time I walk into a room I compare myself to the other women. How are they dressed? Do I fit in? Am I pretty enough?
What a colossal waste of time.
Thirty years. It is an ongoing challenge, learning to love myself, but I try every day.
(Bear with me. This letter, believe it or not, is not about me.)
If I could give you one gift, I would do everything in my power to spare you all of this bullshit.
To my eyes, you are a confident and self-assured young woman. A very pretty girl with enviable long hair, coltish legs and bright blue eyes that reveal a whole lot of smarts and a loving heart. Someone who is as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a total cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason…)
I hope that is how you see yourself, too, but if you are like every other woman I have met in my entire life, those crummy little doubts wiggle into your inner monologue once in a while.
Here is the turning I promised. My wonderful niece, on your thirteenth birthday, here is my wish for you.
I wish that you will spend most of your time focusing on the amazing things your body can do.
Your body can run, play volleyball, throw a basketball and skip when you think no one is looking.
It can flail across the bed—even in sleep—to snuggle with your grandmother.
Your hands can build a Lego contraption, tickle your nephews and write notes filled with secrets to your besties. (They can also make my favorite scrambled eggs, but that’s neither here nor there, and is certainly not poetic enough to match the tone I’m going for here.)
Your glorious brain can craft some of the most charming stories I’ve ever encountered.
Your lanky arms can hug your siblings, even when they’re driving you nuts.
They can also hug your mom, even when she’s driving you so nuts that you need to squeeze her until you’re reminded of how much you love her.
As you turn thirteen, here is what I ask of you:
When someone tells you that you look nice, or pretty, or beautiful, believe them. Say thank you. Don’t equivocate. Don’t say, “Oh, this shirt is too big,” or “I desperately need a haircut.” Own your beauty. Own those compliments.
If you start to criticize yourself, stop. Shut that B.S. down. It is nearly impossible, but the sooner you start practicing, the sooner you can rise above the self-critique to a new strata of positivity and empathy for yourself and, in turn, for those around you.
When you look in the mirror, like what you see. Don’t compartmentalize yourself. See yourself as a strong, winsome, emotional, sensitive sum of your parts.
Know, every day, that you are beautiful and you deserve your own respect more than anyone else’s.
And if you ever find yourself struggling with any of this stuff, call me. We’ll talk. I’ll tell you some stories about my most awkward moments that will make you snort laugh or gasp in horror, and then you’ll feel just a little bit better.
I love you.